The Next Act

There’s been a leadership change at the African American Repertory Theatre.

by Craig Belcher
February 16, 2012

The African American Repertory Theatre has a new artistic director. Veteran local actor D.L. Hopkins replaces Derome Scott Smith, who resigned in September for health reasons, after founding the company in 2002.

Hopkins, 43, has acted in several of the theater’s productions and directed its most recent, “Fences,” in November. Near the end of that show’s run, Hopkins says that Smith told him that he was stepping down. There was some concern in the theater community about the future of the theater after Smith’s resignation and the recent cancellation of its next scheduled production, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Hopkins accepted the position one week ago.

“We’re still here,” Hopkins says. “The state of our union is strong.”

After years of experience in production, Hopkins says he is learning the business side of theater, as he works with the theater’s board of directors to restructure the company. “One of the things I’d like to do is really revamp and establish AART as a force to be reckoned with in this area,” he says. “Strengthen the company, make it a company that young actors of all stripes seek to do work with and become a part of.”

Hopkins says that the company’s next production may be announced in September. A new web site will launch in early March.

FENCES at AART

John Porter

Poet, prophet, miner of truth, August Wilson’s impact on American drama will reverberate for many years to come. Wilson is best known for his “Pittsburgh Cycle” which consists of ten plays, one for each decade of the 20th Century chronicling the lives of African Americans. His work, while dealing with the specifics of everyday life opens up these experiences and offers them as art to the rest of the world. One of Wilson’s best, and best known plays, FENCES is the current offering by the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia and is being presented at Pine Camp.

On the surface it is the story of Troy Maxon, a garbageman beaten by life, a former star in the Negro Baseball Leagues, a home run hitter who was too old to be a part of the major leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. It is the universal story of a man trying to do right for his family, to take care of his wife, to connect with his children, and to stay on the straight and narrow and not fall prey to the devil on his shoulder that wants him to seek excitement and ruin his life.

In actor J. Ron Fleming’s hands, Maxon is charismatic and likeable although not as physically imposing as a former home run slugger might be imagined. Fleming digs deep to mine Maxon’s pain and to vent his frustrations and his performance is vital and alive.

Delvin Young is his best friend Bono, his sidekick and audience and occasional conscience. I was impressed by Young’s understated approach which in turn made Fleming’s interpretation that much more flamboyant.

As Maxon’s wife, Rochelle Turnage provides the bedrock for the play. Her love and understanding offer the very foundation for all of the other characters to build upon. While her role seems underutilized during the first act, her approach in the second act provides much of the fireworks and Turnage gives a terrific performance.

In supporting roles, Justin Delaney offers a solid performance of son Corey, a boy on the threshold of becoming a man. Corey sees sports, specifically football as his way of bettering himself by earning a scholarship to college, while his father wants him to learn a trade instead. Also offering a good performance as Gabriel Maxon is Toney Cobb. Gabriel may have the ability to see into the other world and he heralds things to come.

The technical side is well done, especially Geno Brantley’s set – which is not easy to do with Pine Camp’s limitations, and Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes. Cravey’s clothes subtly reinforce the time period and go a long way to set the mood.

Director dl Hopkins has gone a long ways to create a tight ensemble of actors and designers who have in turn created a powerful and touching production. FENCES is the kind of play that should have a longer run in order to have the time to find its audience, but unfortunately only has a short time to be seen. Put this one into your must see pile and don’t hesitate or like one of Troy Maxon’s home runs, it will be gone.

Stubborn Kind of Fellow

Stubborn Kind of Fellow

Despite flaws, AART’s “Fences” soars at Pine Camp.

by Rich Griset
November 08, 2011

 

African-American playwright August Wilson seemed to enjoy a running joke in his plays: the watermelon. Wilson must have found some perverse joy in incorporating such a racist symbol into his rich theatrical portrayals of black America.

“Fences,” fittingly enough, begins with two garbage men telling a watermelon joke. The play won Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize in 1987 (the second came in 1990 with “The Piano Lesson”), and was the 1950s installment of his Century Cycle — 10 plays chronicling the black experience in each decade of the 20th century.

The play, currently being produced by the African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia, focuses on the Maxons, an African-American family in Pittsburgh. Patriarch Troy’s headstrong and stubborn nature eventually leads to his downfall, and the suffering of those that love him.

While J. Ron Fleming’s Troy might not be as physically imposing as Wilson’s text specifies, the actor more than makes up for it with his onstage presence. Fleming’s stand-out performance is well worth seeing, but he seemed to have trouble with his lines on opening weekend. Delvin Young’s amiable turn as Troy’s best friend Bono is fittingly understated.

Rochelle Turnage, in her performance as Troy’s wife Rose, has difficulty portraying all the dimensions of the conflicted character. Rose is complex, balancing the desire to be a supportive wife with the anger of being cuckolded. Even at the play’s end Rose is still dealing with these competing emotions. Justin Delaney imbues his role as Troy’s son Cory with the perfect mixture of rebellion and respect for his father.

There was also one absolutely shameful performance the night I attended—that of the audience members sitting directly in front of the stage. Throughout the entire play they were talking and laughing disrespectfully. “Fences” is not a comedy, and I was angered to have some of the show’s most dramatic scenes undercut by a sea of laughter. Had I been a performer, I would have been furious.

D.L. Hopkins’ direction is troubled. In the scene where Troy won’t let Cory into the house, the idea that they would come to physical blows while 15 feet away makes little sense. The performances in “Fences” aren’t as uniformly strong as they were in last season’s “Jitney,” the 1970s installment of Wilson’s cycle. Still, laughing and all, it was a good evening of theater.

African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia’s “Fences” plays through Nov. 20 at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center at 4901 Old Brook Road. Tickets are $15-22. For information visit aartva.org or call 355-2187.

Richmond Theater Celebrates at “Artsies”

Richmond Theater Celebrates at “Artsies”

“The Sound of Music” and “Rent” clean up at Richmond theater awards ceremony.

by Jason Roop

Barksdale Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music” emerged as a critics’ favorite on Sunday, winning the lion’s share of accolades at a rollicking awards ceremony for local theater. The show, directed by Chase Kniffen, took home five awards, including best musical and best director.

The musical “Rent,” directed by Jase Smith at the Firehouse Theatre, was nominated for seven awards. It took home four, including best actor (Durron Tyre), best actress (Joy Newsome) and best supporting actor (Antonio Tillman) in a musical. Leilani Mork also won for best musical direction.

The scrappy Richmond Triangle Players won best play for its production of “Take Me Out,” a story about a baseball team dealing with issues of race, religion and one player’s coming-out as a gay man. It was directed by Scott Wichmann.

Eight theater critics from Style Weekly, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, WCVE public radio and the Hanover Herald-Progress, along with independent reviewer Joan Tupponce, make up the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle, which chose the winners.

A joint effort between the Barksdale and African-American Repertory theaters was recognized through a best choreography award to Willie Hinton for “Black Nativity.” And an independent collaboration, “Full Plate Collection,” received best locally-developed work.

The black-tie night, with mistress of ceremonies Melissa Chase and a variety of presenters, featured musical performances from nominated productions. Philanthropists Neil and Sara Belle November received the Liz Marks Memorial Award for ongoing contributions to Richmond area theater.

Other recipients were:
ƒ?› Best Actor (Play) — Joe Inscoe, Henley Street Theatre Company’s “Shining City.”
ƒ?› Best Actress (Play) — Kelly Kennedy, Barksdale’s “On Golden Pond.”
ƒ?› Best Supporting Actor — Jimmy Glidden, “Take Me Out” (Play).
ƒ?› Best Supporting Actress — Carmen Zilles, Barksdale’s “Boleros for the Disenchanted” (Play) and Susan Sanford, “The Sound of Music” (Musical).
ƒ?› Best Direction — Bo Wilson, Henley Street’s “Shining City” (Play).
ƒ?› Best Ensemble Acting — Swift Creek Mill Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”
ƒ?› Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design — Rebecca Cairns, Henley Street’s “Servant of Two Masters”; Lighting Design — Lynne Hartman, “The Sound of Music”; Set Design — Betsy Muller, Barksdale’s “Is He Dead?”; and Sound Design — Derek Dumais, “The Sound of Music.”

Walk a Mile in My Hat

Walk a Mile in My Hat

Play shines a spotlight on headwear and humanity.

by Mary Burruss

Crowns,” a production of the African American Repertory Theatre and the Barksdale Theatre, is an inspirational montage of monologues and music about African-American women and hats. Written by Regina Taylor and adapted from a book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry, the play explores the cultural, social and religious meanings of hats through six characters who serve as composites of 50 women interviewed for the book.

De’Shionay Adkins plays Yolanda, a teenager from Brooklyn who’s sent South to her grandmother’s to heal from the murder of her beloved older brother. Yolanda is transformed while she travels through the stories and rituals of the five other female characters centered on churchgoing life. J. Ron Flemming as the Man rounds out the cast, standing in for every male needed to illustrate the women’s stories.

The power of “Crowns” is how it draws the audience into these stories through hand-clapping, foot-stomping gospel music. Margarette Joyner, Katherine Louis, Desiree Roots Centeio, Shalimar Hickman Fields and Rose Watson have voices that could raise the rafters anywhere. Throughout the show, audience members responded with “um-hmms,” singing and swaying in their seats.

The monologues vary in depth, from rules for wearing hats to stories of personal triumph and loss. And they’re delivered with enthusiasm and panache. Part of grasping the importance of headgear to these women is that you better understand the struggles and mores attached to them — such as earning the money to purchase a hat, the right to shop in any store and the tradition of respect shown by covering one’s head and dressing to meet “the king.” The audience is treated to a soulful walk in these ladies’ shoes — or to be more precise, under their hats. The result is an unforgettable, uplifting theater experience.

“Crowns” plays at CenterStage on selected dates through May 29 then moves to the Barksdale Theatre at Willow Lawn from June 4-27. Tickets $30-$40. Call 282-2620 for information or go to barksdalerichmond.org.

The Spirit Moves Them

 

Dancers delight in theater’s “Black Nativity.”

by David Timberline
December 16, 2009

The holidays are celebrated on stage in a myriad of ways but I have never seen an observance more exuberant than the African American Repertory Theatre’s “Black Nativity.” The production — one part musical theater, two parts tent revival — nearly bursts through the confines of the intimate Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage, the cast of 27 conjuring big voices in support of a slew of Christian spirituals.

The show’s highlights are provided by a half-dozen lithe and lovely dancers — most of them still in middle school and members of the City Dance Theatre (the two boys — Johnnie Mercer Jr. and Brandon Penn — perform in every show, two groups of four girls alternate performances). They bound across the stage with wondrous abandon, expertly choreographed by Willie Hinton. Backed by a peppy four-piece combo (musical direction by James Henley) and evocatively outfitted by costume designer Margaret Joyner, both the singers and the dancers lend a contemporary energy to the tried-and-true story of Mary and Joseph and their trip to Bethlehem.

Narration and inspirational rhetoric are provided by Alfred Powell, a charismatic preacher. Director Derome Scott Smith has chosen his ensemble members well and several of them are given moments to shine — Topaz Wise’s solo on “Now Behold the Lamb” and Michael Braxton’s uplifting “Mary Did You Know” each gave me goose bumps.

It’s a shame that the show loses most of its theatricality after the savior is born about halfway through the first act. The entire second act is given over to songs of praise and thanksgiving, delivered fervently by the ensemble but largely without narrative adornment. I would have liked to see fine actors like Katrina Carol Lewis (Mary) and Dustin Faltz (Joseph) given more to do. As it is, Kesha Afrika Oliver as the Angel of the Lord makes the best acting impression, her sweet and sassy presence melding well with the dancers’ engaging innocence to create a truly divine spectacle. S

“Black Nativity” will run through Dec. 20 at CenterStage, 660 E. Grace St.  and from Dec. 26 to Jan. 3 at the Empire Theatre, 114 W. Broad St. Tickets are $37-$40. Call 344-8040 or go to barksdalerichmond.org  for details.

‘Mahalia’s’ story is thin, but singing is rich

By: SUSAN HAUBENSTOCK SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT | Richmond Times Dispatch
Published: November 08, 2009

African American Repertory Theatre has begun its residence at Richmond CenterStage’s Gottwald Playhouse with “Mahalia,” Tom Stolz’s 1993 musical biography of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

 

As in previous local productions of the play at Swift Creek Mill Theatre, “Mahalia” features the powerful singing of Cora Harvey Armstrong in the title role.

 

Unfortunately, AART’s take on the work is lackluster. It’s a three-actor piece, with Armstrong supported by Billy Dye and Rochelle Turnage playing several characters each. They’re supposed to accompany Armstrong on piano and organ, but recorded music is used for most of the numbers, which makes the songs less immediate than they might be.

 

This just serves to emphasize the flimsiness of Stolz’s script. Jackson lived a fairly interesting life — born in 1911 in New Orleans, she moved to Chicago at 16 to study nursing and became the queen of gospel music. Stolz focuses on her career highlights — her association with gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey, her touring and recording successes, and her landmark concert at Carnegie Hall. He gives us a strong sense of her religious faith and her support for the civil-rights movement. But he leaves out her marriages and shows mere caricatures of her relationships with a cousin, an aunt, a pastor and a pair of accompanists.

 

There’s not much drama in the play, as Stolz has Jackson narrate most of her own story directly to the audience. L. Roi Boyd’s direction does little to overcome these weaknesses. There’s a simple set and basic lighting, some flashy costumes designed by Maura Cravey and enthusiastic performances by Dye and Turnage. There were lighting and set mishaps on opening night, as well as numerous flubbed lines.

 

It’s not much of a play, but Armstrong is an amazing vocalist and the Jackson songs are moving. “My God Is Real (Yes, God Is Real),” “It’s A Highway To Heaven,” “How I Got Over,” “Didn’t It Rain” — each is an affecting showcase for the star. Though she appeared to be battling a cold on opening night, her singing voice was beautiful and strong.
Susan Haubenstock is a Henrico County-based freelance writer and editor. She can be contacted at shaubenstock@gmail.com.